Why Isn't Congress More Efficient?

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Monday, October 1, 2007
There are any number of reasons the public standing of the United States Congress rests at historic lows. Chief among them, I believe, is the widespread conviction that Congress simply can't get much worthwhile done: not on Iraq, not on health care, not on any of the myriad issues that perplex and trouble the average American. 

Wander into any conversation on the topic and you'll get an earful about why this is so: too much partisanship; too much arguing for argument's sake; too many special interests; too much political division in the country. One thing you're unlikely to hear, though, is the mundane but inarguable truth that Congress simply isn't set up to be efficient. It moves by inches for a very good reason — it was designed for deliberation, not speed. 

Now, don't get me wrong. There really is too much destructive partisanship on Capitol Hill. There are too many people in Congress who confuse their party's talking points for productive debate. Capitol Hill can find itself so hemmed in by lobbyists and the expectations of campaign donors that progress becomes impossible. And when the country is up for grabs with divided government and a near–even split in the Congress, making progress is tough. 

Yet it is also true that by its very nature, Congress is inefficient — and though we might be disappointed sometimes that it can't act faster, in general we're better off as a result. 

Think about how Congress was designed by our Founders. They wanted to ensure that the body was representative of the American people, and that it provided a forum for reasoned exploration of the issues besetting the nation — in other words, they wanted reflection and deliberation before action. So they created the Senate and the House, which not only provide two different means of representing the country, but also require that everything happen twice. 

Each piece of legislation must move through subcommittees and committees in both houses, must go through both rules committees, must be debated on the floor of both chambers, must go through a conference committee and get final approval in both chambers, and then must go before the President. This is an arduous trek for a bill, and it makes for an endless variety of ways in which legislation can be amended or stopped outright. It also, however, provides an opportunity to consider thoroughly the implications and potential effects of each potential law. 

Beyond its structure, Congress is an immensely complex institution. Power there is dispersed — to leadership, to committee chairs and ranking minority members, to members acknowledged to be experts in a particular field, to especially successful fundraisers. Then the Senate adds a layer of complexity: There, the ability to filibuster a measure means that effectively it takes 60 votes, not a simple majority, to pass legislation on controversial topics. This is an extremely high bar. 

Moreover, Congress' very representativeness is at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. This is now such a diverse nation that the assumptions about public policy prevailing in a congressional district in Utah or Mississippi will be very different, if not diametrically opposite, from those you'd find in Los Angeles or much of New England. Congress is where those varied points of view must grapple with one another, and where all the many private interests at play in the country, those with money and those with nothing but moral suasion, get their say. Every member is impressed with the sheer number and intensity of the lobbyists. 

It's hardly surprising that it can take a while to sort all this out, especially in the House, whose members must stand for election every two years and who therefore are always keenly attuned to the political calendar. 

To get a sense of what can happen when Congress does act speedily, look no further than the law authorizing National Security Agency surveillance that was passed just before the August recess. It was only after the bill had been signed into law that many members of Congress learned they'd given the NSA much more expansive warrantless surveillance powers than they'd believed. Likewise, recall the shock of members when they learned that in just its first decade the Medicare prescription bill was going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars more than they'd been led to believe. These bills were hurried through Congress at such a pace that they never got the detailed consideration they needed. 

The truth is, Congress deals with the toughest issues in the country. Its job is to understand them thoroughly, weigh the beliefs and interests of an astounding variety of Americans, and consider carefully how to move forward. Passion and speed are not conducive to good legislation; on the whole, we want to use the brakes on the process provided by the Constitution and by congressional structure. 

The next time you complain about the sluggishness of Congress, think about it. It's not all bad. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)